Unrelenting Drama?

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This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

Eugene O'Neill's The Hairy Ape isn't a play you get a chance to see very often.

Written in 1922, it's one of O'Neill's early plays. Which, to place it in context, means that O'Neill had only won two of his four Pulitzers when he wrote it.

The story draws on O'Neill's maritime past and focuses on the brutally hard men that stoke the coal burners of transatlantic ships. The plot is fairly simple. We meet this gang of men. One day, mid voyage, the daughter of the steel magnate asks the captain to take her down to the belly of the ship to see these men working. The toughest among them, Yank, is entranced by her presence. She's horrified by the vision and Yank is branded no more than a "hairy ape."

He's transfixed by this experience and needs to track down this woman. He stalks her through the streets of New York and vows to exact his revenge. He searches out the Industrial Workers of the World in hopes they'll help him destroy her father's factories. No luck, they think he's a snitch. So he seeks solace and power amongst the actual apes at the zoo. As you might guess, this doesn't go well.

It's easy to see what attracted British director and actor Steven Berkoff to revive the text. It is, on one level, a play about class divide, about the injustice of extreme inequality. As others have pointed it out, you can 'feel the Bern' in the play's message.

Mr. Berkoff's production, currently playing at the Odyssey Theatre is undeniably virile. He's cast a wonderfully odd but tight male ensemble that almost immediately pronounces their bare-chested masculinity. As if the stomping and chanting of these men isn't enough, they're accompanied by a live percussionist who underscores the more violent moments with booming slaps. To say this is a man's world is almost gratuitous. You're observing a tribe where the mettle of a man is contained in the strength of his sinews. It's a world of a different time not only for its physicality but also its language.

O'Neill writes the dialogue in a deep dialect of the time. To its great credit, the production brings both this testosterone driven world of language and physicality to life. Part of the shock and joy of the play are the moments when we recognize in the past the patterns and language of the present. There's no question this is a good production of The Hairy Ape."

The more challenging question is what does "The Hairy Ape" have to tell us today. If we want to look more deeply than a period piece with a clear, almost didactic, message - where does the drama reside? Here, I came up short. The outlines of the story are so clear that I yearned for more nuance. The play has to it that tragic descent and fatalism of a Zola novel. While powerful, it falls into the category of unrelenting drama rather than thrilling drama.

We're going to see more plays like this as the American theater grapples with a way to give voice to the frustrations that our political candidates are drawing on for their lifeblood.

The Hairy Ape plays at the Odyssey Theatre in West LA through July 17.

This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

Running time 1:40 minutes with an intermission.

Photo: Enci Box